It is airborne. It is spreading.
A day at work in an immigration detention center for unaccompanied children.
BY SARAH DEYOREO
Early morning, downtown Portland, across the street from the Portland Art Museum. A five-story, red-brick, block-like building, likely dating from the 50s or 60s. A fading sign announces that this is the home of the Young Women’s Christian Association, YWCA: “eliminating racism, empowering women.”
But the doors are locked. There are no YWCA patrons to be seen. Few people enter or exit the building. Those who do enter use key cards attached to their badges.
Most of the city is still asleep. You hear the distant clang of car doors, the rattle of delivery trucks, the low murmur of traffic coming from the busier SW Broadway, three blocks away. Here and there, a person rides past on a bicycle, boards the Portland streetcar, goes into the Safeway at SW 10th and Jefferson. A homeless man is standing on the corner, he asks if you have a smoke, you say no. In this part of the city, there are many homeless people, and you’ve had to develop a kind of resistance to their requests, in order to get by, you tell yourself, to get through. Within a few hours, ordinary Portlanders will be going about their days: shopping, laughing, going to work, drinking coffee or tea at the lovely café across the plaza, Behind the Museum Café, a place that has become a private refuge for you on your 30-minute lunch breaks.
Because you are not ordinary. It is no longer possible to pretend that you are. Not pretending, you breathe, you extract your key from the front of your jacket, you enter the building. The front lobby is clean, modern, and welcoming. There is a seating area with two leather couches, a coffee table. A circular desk made of warm wood sits in the middle of the room; a staff member is often, though not always, seated at the center of it. This morning, there is a man there, someone you’ve met only in passing. He has kind eyes, a gentle smile, and you say “Hi.”
You take the stairs to the fourth floor, drop your backpack in the breakroom. You put your lunch in the mini-fridge, fill your water bottle, use the bathroom, and make your way to the set of elevators. From the depths of the building, you hear movement, rumbling, the shifting and rattling of old cables and gears. You pull your phone out of your pocket, check the time, 6:58 a.m., and log into the cell phone application that allows you to clock in for your shift. An elevator arrives, you enter. From the keychain hanging around your neck, you select the small silver key with the circular head. You use it to unlock the button labeled “B1,” punch it with your finger, and descend.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5 floors down. 6:59 a.m. The elevator opens: large room, open floor plan. Thinning, grey carpet. Beige walls. Metal railing separating upper living area from lower dining area. A moveable black desk with chair and computer, facing the railing, overseeing all. Sharp, fluorescent lights. Children’s artwork. Daily agenda. Monthly activity calendar. A round wooden table on which sits the lifeless head of a mannequin, transformed overnight. Some of the girls and one of the boys have lately taken to brushing and braiding its long, blonde hair, twisting it into elaborate designs. You’ve seen them in the afternoons, returned from school: pulling the nylon strands carefully through their fingers.
You take everything in. You take nothing in. You remain you until
You step out. You clock in.
7:00am: [Directions to Morning Staff]: Clock in, enter basement living/dining area (B1), turn on radios, attach headpieces, review duty sheet w/ duty assignments for the day: Breakfast, Medications, Laundry, Room Checks, Log & Shift Summary, Lunch/Snack, Activity & Rec. Log, Building Inspection
7:10am: Overnight Staff, stationed on 4th and 5th floors, over radio: “Morning team, are you ready to receive minors in B1?”
7:10am: Morning Staff, over radio: “Yes, we’re ready to receive minors.”
7:10-7:15am: First minors begin transitioning from 4th and 5th floors to B1. All transitions are announced over radio and documented in log:
7: 13am | X from 4th floor to B1 ———— | Staff Initials
Male minors (5th floor) and female minors (4th floor) are required to transition separately; males and females must never be alone in the stairwell at the same time.
This same no-contact rule structures much of shelter life: males and females should not sit next to one another on the couches, in the vans, if possible; no touch is allowed, period, between minors and other minors or minors and staff, regardless of sex.
This rule, all are assured, is for the minors’ safety.
— Minors are children, teenagers, 15 to 18 years old, in a country they do not know, immersed in a language they do not speak, separated from all family and friends back home. In all ways, including this most basic, bodily one, they are alone. —
7:15am: Staff conduct 15-minute headcount. Headcount is announced over radio and documented in log. For example: “I have 5 minors in B1;” “I have 4 minors on the 5th floor;” et cetera.
7:15-7:30am: Minors continue to transition from 4th and 5th floors and eat breakfast in B1. Breakfast is prepared by the resident chef every morning: rice, beans, eggs, pancakes, bacon, hash-browns—some combination thereof.
Meals here are a constant struggle: the minors complain about the food and often do not want to eat. The chef tries to make food the minors will like and gets frustrated when they are not happy with what he makes.
No one feels compelled to mention Everyone feels compelled but forbidden to mention that the problem is not the chef or his cooking; the problem is the setting in which he cooks. Like a virus, like an insect, it enters in through the beans, the rice, the eggs, and there it settles, nests, makes a home. It is nowhere and it is everywhere. It is airborne. It is spreading.
7:30am: Staff conduct 15-minute headcount. Headcount is announced over radio and documented in log.
7:30-7:45am: Minors eat, relax, watch TV, listen to music in B1. Staff are not permitted to eat with minors, in order to maintain proper boundaries.
This rule, all are assured, is for the minors’ safety.
Most of the food is thrown out.
7:45am: Staff conduct 15-minute headcount. Headcount is announced over radio and documented in log.
7:45-8:00am: Minors leave for school from B1.
Any minors taking prescribed medications are given those before leaving. Minors are strongly encouraged to take their prescribed medications; they cannot be forced. Any medication refusal is documented in a Medication Anomaly Form (MAF).
The minors’ health, all are assured, is our highest concern.
Minors are made aware of any previously scheduled appointments and are given specific instructions regarding their attendance at those. Appointments are documented in log and shift summary, and staff oversee all appointment logistics.
All transitions to school are announced over radio and documented in log. Minors must have their cellphones with them and turned on at all times so that they can be tracked every hour, on the hour (see more below). Tracking is announced over radio and documented in log.
8:00am: Staff conduct hourly headcount and tracking of minors.
Every hour, on the hour, staff are required to use Find My Friends® cellphone application to track minors at school. If a minor’s location is unavailable or if a minor is tracking in an unauthorized location and minor cannot be reached, staff must begin runaway procedure within 15 minutes. Runaway procedure involves: alerting supervisors, contacting local law enforcement, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), as well as continuing to try to locate said minor.
Tracking is announced over radio and documented in log.
8:00am-11:00am: Staff perform assigned duties for the day, including 15-minute headcount and hourly tracking of minors.
Staff member assigned to laundry takes elevator to 4th and 5th floors, moves laundry baskets left in hallways to laundry room, begins to process minors’ laundry. Minors may do their own laundry on the weekends or after school, but on weekday mornings they may leave it outside of their rooms for staff to do. [You: you find it surprising, given the strict and all-encompassing no-contact rules, that staff are permitted to handle the minors’ clothing. Do others find it troubling, dangerous, exciting—this potential /breach/, this threat of /intimacy/?]
Staff member assigned to breakfast cleans the dining area, mops if necessary, wipes down tables and chairs. Staff member takes dishes to 1st floor kitchen and washes them using the commercial, stainless steel dishwasher. [You say “hi” to the chef, to other program staff, observe the dozens of kids, much younger than the ones downstairs, eating breakfast in the cafeteria adjacent to the kitchen. Occasionally, one of these kids approaches the dividing window, returns his tray of food, asks you, standing over the sink, for un vaso limpio, un plato más. This kid doesn’t realize you belong to a different program; to him, you suspect, all staff members are the same. You freeze, recover, hand over a glass, smile. Gracias, you say, looking him right in the eyes, gracias. Can enough “thank yous” function as an apology? Hands shaking, you return to the dishes.]
— 1st floor kitchen, like the rest of the building, is shared by two programs: Long Term Group Home (LTGH), for minors 15-18 years old who have no viable sponsors in the U.S. and therefore remain “in care” until they can be placed with a foster family or in some form of state foster care; and Shelter, for minors 13-18 years old who do or may have viable sponsors in the U.S. Shelter is designed to house minors for four months or less, although that time frame is loosely enforced, particularly when demand is high. LTGH is designed to house minors for anywhere from four months to two years, although: ditto. Typically, minors are transferred from one facility to another, in different parts of the country, so that by the time they reach a place like LTGH, they have already been in care for anywhere from three months to three years. Whereas LTGH is the lowest-level security of all ORR programs, meaning that minors can attend public schools, go on self-outings, and lead more or less “normal” lives, at least (and only) superficially speaking, Shelter is classified as a “staff-secure” facility: minors attend school within the building, operated by program staff; minors must be supervised on all transitions, including between floors and to and from bathrooms; minors may leave the building only on supervised outings. Above “staff-secure,” there are “secure” facilities. “Secure” facilities are more or less prisons, and it is to prison that these facilities more or less lead. The three different levels of classification suggest that some prisons are worse, more prison-like, than others, but one suspects this is the logic of the prison speaking. All prisons are prisons, no matter the trappings.
Prisons are matters of kind, not degree. —
Staff member assigned to log remains in B1 and documents location of minors (“10/10 minors at school”) every 15 minutes. Staff member begins composing daily Shift Summary using the Shift Summary Template, available in the program Shared Drive. Shift Summary is a record of all regular staff members and other personnel present in B1 over the course of the shift, including any visitors, maintenance & repair personnel, staff from other departments or programs; a paragraph summary of the events of the day, which should be composed in past tense: “The morning began with 4/10 minors on the 4th floor and 6/10 minors on the 5th floor. Minors began transitioning to B1 at 7:11am and were finished transitioning by 7:31am. All minors ate breakfast in B1...” and so on; individual summaries for each minor, including all transition times, meals eaten, chores or activities performed, any appointments, medications, outings, any actions or behaviors for which minor received an Internal Incident Report (IIR), Medical Internal Incident Report (MIIR), or Significant Incident Report (SIR), anything else of note; separate, often redundant notes of any phone calls made by minors, medications taken, appointments attended, consequences currently in effect. Consequences are the result of noteworthy—typically unwanted—behavior, typically documented separately in an IIR, for minor offences, or an SIR, for more serious ones, and can include things like: reduced weekend stipend, early curfew, no self-outings for x days or weeks, no laptop, no cell-phone. In the event of a no-cell-phone consequence, minor’s cell-phone is locked by shift supervisor so that phone cannot be used for calling, texting, or other purposes. Minor may not go on self-outings, as he or she will be unable to call into the program at the required one-hour intervals. Minor must, however, continue to bring cell-phone to school in order to be tracked every hour, on the hour. Failure to bring cell-phone to school could result in an extended or more serious consequence.
11:00am-12:30pm: All staff are sent on 30-minute lunch breaks. Times for breaks are determined by the supervisor or lead staff member on duty. Staff may request earlier or later breaks depending on their desires & needs; those requests are usually honored. Lunch breaks are staggered so that no more than two staff are absent at the same time, in order to maintain sufficient floor coverage.
You spend your lunch break at the café across the plaza. You emerge from the
building and blink stupidly, a dazed, lightless creature, and make your way
across the squares of shining, white pavement. A woman smiles and
how are you? when you enter. You want to cry, or say nothing you
want to say the horror of it you want to say . But you don’t know
how. You order a coffee, you sit down. You read a book, or stare at the
table, at the faces of the other people you draw lines, shapes on a napkin.
They are symbols but you don’t know how to read them. You finish
your coffee, you throw the napkin in the trash. On your way out, always on
your way out, always on your way, always, your, you look straight at the people
standing behind the counter, and you say thank you. Thank you. /
12:30-3:00pm: Staff return from 30-minute lunch breaks.
Staff complete remaining duties for the day, such as moving laundry from washers to dryers, performing room checks, preparing the 4pm Snack.
One staff member inspects each of the minors’ bedrooms, checks for contraband including, although not limited to: 1) weapons, 2) sharp objects, 3) signs of a planned escape, 4) food such as sodas, large quantities of candy, chip bags, all of which must remain in B1, 5) pornographic or otherwise vulgar materials, including illustrations produced by the minors themselves, 6) signs of gang involvement or activity; the organization has a strict “zero tolerance” policy, 7) anything containing alcohol, including cleaners, lotions, and hair gels. Upon completion of room checks, staff member documents findings in Room Check Log and communicates any issues to afternoon staff, who will follow up with the minors accordingly.
4pm Snack is prepared in accordance with the weekly Snack Calendar, posted in both the Kitchen and B1. Snack typically consists of a hot portion, previously frozen (e.g., taquitos, mini-pizzas, corn dogs) and a cold portion, typically processed and packaged (e.g., trail mix, chocolate pudding, fruit cups). Sometimes fresh fruit is served.
Staff continue to track and document location of minors.
Staff continue to follow proper tracking procedures, including those implemented in the event of a runaway (see above). Staff are encouraged to share any significant, work-related questions or concerns with program supervisors or directors, rather than with fellow staff members. [Despite the surveillance cameras and the open floor plan and an omnipresent sense of BEING WATCHED, there are ways of getting around this rule.]
Staff continue to fill any down time with cleaning, organizing, and other chores.
Staff are directed not to converse with other staff regarding non-work-related activities, although sometimes they do that, too.
3:00pm: Swing Staff arrive and convene in Supervisor’s Office for daily “hotspot” meeting. Members of morning team may join if they have completed their duties for the day. Hotspots follow a “community meeting” format: staff, including supervisors and program directors, go around in a circle and each asks the person sitting next to them: 1) how are you doing today, 2) what are your goals for the day, 3) who can help you with those goals?
Typical responses to first question: “tired,” “happy,” “good.” Typical responses to second question: “complete all my duties,” “check in with minors,” “meet with x.” Typical responses to third question: “x and y,” “all of you.” Typical refrain from fellow staff members following response to third question: “Gotchyou.”
What is a community meeting absent of all sense of community? What is a community absent of all sense of trust? How does one build trust when there is the unspoken understanding, cold and heavy in the room, that only certain answers to these questions are allowed, others prohibited? Despite the circular seating arrangement and the open questions and the repeated “gotchyous,” no one is fooled: if you want to remain in this community, you stick to the script, you follow the rules.
Which begs the question: >> Do you want to remain in this community? <<
3:20-3:30pm: Minors begin returning from school. Minors must call to be let into the building; all doors leading into the building are locked.
No one has thought Many have thought but no one has said to give the minors keys to what is, in effect, their new home.
This rule, all are assured, is for the minors’ safety.
All arrivals are announced over radio and documented in log.
3:30pm: Morning Staff return radios, headpieces, clock out, go home.
Minors do not go home Minors cannot go home Minors home
For the minors, this is home.
From January to May of 2019, Sarah DeYoreo worked for the Portland-based nonprofit organization Morrison Child & Family Services. Alongside its other programs designed to serve Portland youth, Morrison operates, to this day, three immigration detention centers for Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) in different parts of the city. DeYoreo worked at, and was fired from, one of them. Until recently, Morrison did not advertise these programs on its website, and little to no information on their inner workings, daily operations, or whereabouts is made available to the general public. For those existing fully outside of these spaces, it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine what it is like to live or work in a place like this, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, in some cases. This piece is an attempt to change that.